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The Greatest Sermon Ever Told | Don't Play It Safe!
September 24, 2023
13You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. 14“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. 15Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
To discover and experience Jesus Christ in our midst
To cultivate mutually encouraging relationships
To participate in God’s mission to the world
God of all hope, bring hope to our weary world and to our troubled hearts; ignite hope within our worship this day. Strengthen our faith as children of hope, that we may partner with you and share the good news of your steadfast faithfulness with the world. In Jesus name. Amen.
Responsive Prayer—Psalm 27
The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after:
That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.
Summary and Connection
Recently we began a new series focused on the Sermon on the Mount titled The Greatest Sermon Ever Told. In our previous discussions we looked at the Beatitudes where we see Jesus making apparently paradoxical statements to describe the character of a Christian. The Beatitudes answers the question—what kind of person is a Christian? The Beatitudes describe the character of Christians as the blessed ones or the flourishing ones who stand out in their humility, display of mercy, and their radical response to suffering and persecution.
Today’s discussion is based on Matthew 5:13-16. The central theme of this section is closely related to the Beatitudes. In fact, the motif implicit in the Beatitudes becomes an explicit theme in this section—A Christian’s influence as a witness. How does a Christian, as the flourishing one, live on earth? Jesus employs two metaphors to describe a Christian’s influence on earth—salt and light.
Jesus specifically employs the metaphors of salt and light as he wanted his disciples—and the crowd—to clearly see the essential nature of what it means to be a follower of Christ. A Christian is essentially the salt of the earth and light of the world. To be a Christian is to be salt and light. It is not optional. Its scope is not limited for specific Christians like pastors, evangelists, or missionaries. The essential nature and purpose of salt is saltness and the essential nature and function of light is illumination. A true Christian, like the salt, serves as a preservative in a decaying and deteriorating culture. It is essential for Christians, and for the church, to be the salt of the earth, to hinder the process of spiritual decay and deterioration. Our role is not to detach from the world, to play safe, or to be an exclusive club for like minded people. We are called to preserve, prevent, and add the gospel flavor, rubbing into the secular culture, as salt is rubbed into meat from going bad, or into a wound to prevent infection. Jesus emphatically issues a clear warning against formal Christianity: to lose our ‘saltness’ as Christians is to ‘play safe’— doing nothing, or worse, to despair and live in fear in the face of sin, evil, and cultural deterioration. To be a formal Christian, in other words, is to be worthless, like the salt that has lost its saltness. One commentator calls formal Christians as “the most pathetic and useless people who know enough about Christianity to spoil the world for them, but they do not know enough about it to be of any positive value…they have enough Christianity to spoil everything else, but not enough to give them real happiness, peace, and abundance of life.”
Jesus emphasizes the dangers of forgetting the essential functions of salt and light Christian living. It is contradictory, and even ridiculous when a Christian does not act as the salt and light. It is like lighting the lamp and hiding it under the bushel. It defeats the essential purpose of being a light. In other words, a true Christian cannot be hid, and in fact, a true Christian does not even desire to be hid. A Christian, as the blessed one, will stand out like a city on a hill. A Christian flourishes as the salt—preserving the truth, beauty, and goodness of the gospel, preventing the deterioration caused by sin, and adding the gospel flavor wherever God has placed them. What is true of the Christians as individuals is true for the church as well. The church has a dual role to play—as the salt to arrest and hinder the social decay and spiritual death caused by sin. As the light to dispel the darkness by shining the light of the gospel, both through words, and actions.
1. Looking at the Bible
What does the text say? Who are the main characters in this story? What according to you is the theme of this passage?
- What is the central theme of Matthew 5:13-16? How is this theme related to the Beatitudes?
- Why does Jesus liken his followers to salt? What does it mean in practice to be salt?
- Why does Jesus liken his followers to light? What does Jesus mean by “good works”(5:16b)?
2. Looking at Jesus
At Central we believe that all of Scripture points to Jesus. In other words, Jesus is the theological center of the Bible. Every passage not only points to Jesus, but the grand narrative of the Bible also finds its fulfillment in the person and work of Jesus.
- How is Jesus the true salt of the earth and light of the world? How does our acknowledgment of Jesus as the true salt and light help us to be the salt and light?
3. Looking at Our Hearts
The following are personal application questions based on the stages of growth in Christian faith.
- How might you be tempted to play safe, or to become a formal Christian? What poses a greater danger to you personally: losing your saltness by accommodating to the world, or hiding your light by withdrawing from the world?
- What resources does Jesus provide to help you in your struggle to be salt and light?
4. Looking at Our World
- How would you summarize Jesus’ teaching concerning how the Church is supposed to relate to the world as salt and light? Why does the world need Christians to be salt and light?
God’s word is a lamp to our feet. Christ’s teachings are a light to our path. May God’s word take root in our lives. May Christ’s love nourish and sustain us. Amen.
View Study Guide Notes
Question 1a. The central theme of Matthew 5:13-16 has to do with the Christian’s influence in the world. Christians are called to live in the world as salt and light, and not in isolation. Jesus specifically employs the metaphors of salt and light as he wanted his disciples and the crowd to clearly see the essential nature of what it means to be a follower of Christ. To be a Christian is to be the salt of the earth, and light of the world. A Christian is essentially, and functionally, the salt of the earth and light of the world. As salt and light, Christians are the heralds or ambassadors of the new and lasting covenant—the covenant of grace.
The central theme of this section is closely related to the Beatitudes. In fact, the motif implicit in the Beatitudes becomes an explicit theme in this section—a Christian as a witness. The Beatitudes answers the question—what kind of person is a Christian? The Beatitudes describes the character of a Christian as the blessed one or the flourishing one. This section answers the question—how does a Christian, as the blessed one, live on earth? What is a Christian’s influence in society? Christians flourish in the world and influence the world as salt and light. Jesus was aware of the suffering, criticism, and persecution his followers will endure. However, he wants us to be fully aware that in our suffering, mourning, hungering and thirsting, we will flourish as salt and light, bringing glory to God.
Question 1b. Jesus specifically uses the salt metaphor to describe his followers. Jesus’ metaphor has theological and redemptive historical purposes. Salt was used in the solemn event of enacting a lasting covenant. As a sign of loyalty, salt was eaten by itself or with bread to commit to a covenantal agreement (Lev. 2:13; Num. 18:19; Ezra 4:14). The idea behind the use of salt in covenant making is to suggest the permanence of God’s covenant. Theologically speaking, Christians are called the salt of the earth as they are the heralds of the new and permanent covenant, effected by Jesus. It is a high privilege, and a solemn responsibility.
Furthermore, salt has a variety of uses. It is used as a condiment and a preservative. Salt preserves, adds flavor, and hinders decay and deterioration. By likening his disciples to salt, Jesus implies that apart from Christians, the world left to itself, will deteriorate. Christians have the effect of delaying moral and spiritual decay and deterioration. By virtue of being the true followers of Jesus, Christians cannot help but be agents for good in society. Christians serve as powerful social restraints within sinful society.
Practically speaking, the function of the salt is negative. Salt works the best when it is rubbed against meat or infectious wounds. Salting, in other words, has to bite in order to be effective. Proclamation of the word of God, from the pulpit, at a Bible study, or a Community Group, is salt at work. Scripture denounces the whole world, exposing sinfulness, and our desperate need to be rescued, by pointing the world to the person and work of Jesus. As ‘salt’ Christians, we are not only called to be loving and kind, but also to be courageous, outspoken in condemning evil. We are not called to play safe. The burden of the gospel is both truth and love. To lose our ‘saltness’ as Christians is to do nothing, or worse, to despair and live in fear in the face of sin, evil, and cultural deterioration. To be a formal Christian, in other words, is to be worthless, like the salt that has lost its saltness.
Question 1c. The whole function and purpose of light is to illuminate. Christians are the light in the dark and broken world. Practically speaking, to be the light is to be the witness to the power of the gospel. We are not called to condemn the world in pride or hide from the world in fear, nor to separate ourselves from the world in self-righteousness. A true Christian cannot be hid, and in fact, a true Christian does not even desire to be hid. A Christian will stand out, like a city on a hill, faithfully pointing the dark world to the true light of the world. To be the light is to be unashamedly Christian. We should not pretend to be other than who we are but be joyfully willing for our faith to be visible to all.
It is vital for us to understand that ‘good works’ are not our efforts that merits our recognition as the light of the world. Jesus clarifies the function of the light as our ‘good works.’ Good works could also be described as our righteousness. Paul calls Jesus as a Christian’s righteousness (1 Cor. 1:30; 2 Cor. 5:21). In other words, as the light, our good works reflect the work of the gospel in and through our lives. ‘Good works’ is a general expression to cover everything a Christian says or does because he is a Christian. It captures every outward and visible manifestation of a Christian’s faith. John Stott makes an insightful observation about ‘good works’: “People will see us and our good works and seeing us will glorify God. It is the light they will praise, not the lamp which bears it. It is our Father in heaven whom they will praise, not the children he has begotten who exhibit a certain family likeness.” Even those who persecute Christians can’t help but glorify God for the very display of righteousness (good works) on account of which they persecute them.
Question 2: In his gospel, the apostle John introduces Jesus as the light, and Jesus’ incarnation as light entering the darkness of the world and our souls. In John 8:12, Jesus identifies himself as the light of the world. Jesus as the light illuminates the world through his life, death, and resurrection. As the light of the world, Jesus enters into the darkness of the world, and thereby displaying God’s glory and his love for fallen humanity. We see the ultimate display of Jesus’ ‘good work’ as the light of the world on the cross. On the cross, Jesus perfectly fulfills the righteous requirement of the law, securing our righteousness. As redeemed sinners, we are united with the light of the world. Our union with Jesus enables us to be the light of the world. Our good works are but the outworking of the gospel in our lives.
Jesus is also the true salt of the earth. In Genesis 3, we see sin entering the world through Adam and Eve’s disobedience, fracturing the relationship between God and humanity. Darkness, deterioration, decay, and death characterizes the fallen humanity. Jesus as the light of the world, illuminates the darkness of the soul and the world. Jesus’ proclamation of the gospel was salt at work. He denounced the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. As the true salt, he healed the sick, welcomed sinners, and embraced the broken hearted. Jesus as the true salt of the earth, conquered the deterioration, decay, and death caused by sin. We deserve to be trampled underfoot as the worthless ones, yet it was Jesus who was trampled for our sake so that we may be called the salt of the earth. We are the salt of the earth in and through Jesus the suffering servant who humbled himself to become the worthless one on the cross.
Acknowledging our dependence on Jesus as the true salt and light enables us to live as salt and light truly and courageously. Our dependence on our redeemer protects us from losing our saltness by playing safe, living in fear or despair, or worse, by accommodating to the world. Our dependence on the light of the world protects us from becoming formal Christians who hide their light by withdrawing from the world.
Question 3: These are personal application questions. Here are some pointers for discussion: A formal Christian is the one who has the name but not the quality of a Christian. Paul describes the formal Christians as the ones who have a form of godliness but not the substance of godliness. In other words, formal Christians appear to be Christians, but they do not function as Christians—salt and light. They are salt without saltness and light without light. You could ask someone to read from Revelation 3:14-22.
Here are some diagnostic questions you can ask as follow up to encourage discussion: Do you tend to not address the destructive and deteriorating effect of sin in others fearing their rejection? Remember, to be a salt is to graciously, and courageously tell the truth, confronting the sin while loving the sinner. Sometimes we tend to accommodate the culture to such a degree that there is no difference between us and non-Christians. We default to playing safe, and calling it a loving and gracious approach. This amounts to hiding our light for the fear of rejection or persecution. We also hide our light when we live in unrepentant sin, or when we neglect reading the bible, prayer, or even attending church.
Resources to help you in your struggle to be salt and light:
- God’s word. God’s word acts as the light, as well as the oil that enables us to be the light. We can’t function without the word of God. Encourage the group to read the Bible regularly.
- Prayer: In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul prays that Christ may dwell in their hearts richly by faith, and that they may be filled with all the fullness of God. As Christians we have the Holy Spirit as our helper. How can we ensure that we truly function as salt and light? Prayer is the answer. We are called to seek the light of the world in prayer to be the salt and light. As we learned in the Beatitudes, we are called to hunger and thirst for righteousness—acknowledging our perpetual need of God, and his supply of wisdom, courage, strength, and faith to live as salt and light.
- Fellowship: Christians are not called to live in isolation. We are called to be a part of the body of Christ. We are called to be salt and light, not just as individual Christians, but also as a community of believers. We are called to encourage one another to be the salt and light. To come alongside one another in their struggle. As a community of believers, we are to live in such a way that the world will ask, “What is it about these Christians? Why are they so different in every way, different in their conduct and behavior? There is something about them which we do not understand or explain!”
Question 4: This is a personal application question. Here are some pointers for discussion: The fundamental function of the church in relation to the world as salt and light is through proclamation of the gospel. The word of God acts as the salt rubbed against the meat, or on the wound. It prevents the infection of sin, and hinders the decay, and deterioration of sin and evil. The church also acts as the light of the world, exposing the darkness of sin, and also guiding the spiritually blind using God’s word as the lamp, ultimately pointing them to Jesus.
The world needs Christians to be salt and light as salt and light have one thing in common: they give and expend themselves. Salt and light are the opposite of every self-centered religion, or postmodern individualistic culture. The world needs Christians to be salt and light as their effects are distinct yet complementary. The function of salt is largely negative: it prevents decay. The function of light is positive: it illuminates the darkness. According to John Stott, “Jesus calls his disciples to exert double influence on the secular community, a negative influence by arresting the decay and a positive influence by bringing light into darkness. For it is one thing to stop the spread of evil; it is another to promote the spread of truth, beauty, and goodness.”